Minister calls for hasty government action to address deficiencies in key utilities
By Osama Habib
Saturday, December 11, 2010

BEIRUT: The dwindling number of engineers, technicians and clerks in the electricity and water departments may seriously affect the overall performance of Electricite du Liban (EDL) if the government fails to take immediate action, Energy and Water Minister Jibran Bassil and other experts warned Friday.

“The external support is not sufficient to plug the prevailing loopholes in the institutions and most notably the electricity and water departments,” Bassil said in conference on water in Beirut.

This fear was echoed by energy experts who blamed successive governments for the appalling conditions at electricity and water departments in Lebanon.

At one point, EDL and the water department used to staff over 5,000 people, but the government in 1985 decided to freeze all hiring in these departments, claiming that most of these staff had been imposed by politicians in the 1970s and early 1980s. Currently, there are less than 2,200 employees at EDL and less than 300 at the electricity department.

To contain the sharp fall in the number of staff in some of these departments, the governments agreed to hire freelancers to carry out certain duties such as collecting bills, repairing power lines and carrying out some small maintenance work.

It is estimated that close to 1,200 part-time workers and technicians help EDL and the water department to carry out certain duties.

Chafic Abi Said, former director of studies at EDL and author of two books on the conditions of electricity in Lebanon, told The Daily Star that he was not surprised by the sharp drop in the number of employees at the electricity and water departments. “This was bound to happen sooner or later especially if we take into consideration that more than 100 employees retire from EDL each year. The average age of these staff [members] is relatively high [55 years according to official estimates],” Abi Said said.

Kamal Hayek, the director general of EDL, said he expected over 190 people to retire in 2011 and that this would leave a big gap which would be difficult to fill in a short period of time.

Abi Said argued that most of the part-time employees were not qualified to carry out sensitive duties and that the bulk of them have neither the proper education nor the proper experience.

Other experts suggested that the government may be pushing for the privatization of the electricity sector under the pretext that the state can no longer afford to hire more people.

Bassil estimated the vacancies at the Energy and Water Ministry at around 88 percent, and wondered whether there was a plot behind the government’s refusal to hire more people. “We have constantly warned that the electricity and water departments are in great danger if we don’t hire more employees to fill the growing gap,” Bassil said.

According to Bassil, the number of vacancies in the south and north water department is more than 75 percent, Bekaa Valley 69 percent and Beirut and Mount Lebanon 44 percent.

“Those who refuse to address this problem are simply trying to paralyze these departments. This is a slow death,’ the minister said.

But Abi Said blamed Bassil and all former energy ministers for the pathetic conditions at EDL and water departments.

“They [officials] should have formed a regulatory authority for energy. This was stated in the law over 20 years ago but no one bothered to implement it,” Abi Said said, adding that this regulatory authority could handle all the complicated matters plaguing EDL and water departments.

Abi Said rejected the notion that the salaries of EDL and water departments were causing a financial burden on the treasury. “This is not true. Out of the $1.5 billion which is earmarked to EDL each year, only 17 percent goes to cover the salaries of staff and the bulk covers the rising cost of fuel oil.”

Bassil last year called for a plan to allocate $4.870 billion to boost power production from 1,500 to 4,000 megawatts in 2014. Out of this $4.870 billion, the state would spend $1.550 billion, the private sector $2.320 billion and the remaining $1 billion would come in the form of soft loans from donor countries. The plan calls for investing another $1.650 billion in the long run so Lebanon can produce 5,000 megawatts of electricity.

“If we provided 24 hours of electricity and raised slightly the bill on consumers then EDL would start making a profit for the first time instead of suffering constant deficit,” Bassil said earlier.